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On Such a Full Sea: A Novel

On Such a Full Sea - Chang-rae Lee "Moment to moment we act freely, we make decisions and form opinions and there is very little to throttle us. We think each of us has a map marked with private routings and preferred habitual destinations, and go by a legend of our own. Yet it turns out you can overlay them and see a most amazing correspondence, what you believed were very personal contours aligning not exactly but enough that while our via points may diverge, our endings do not."

This month's post-apocalyptic book club selection.

B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, is a tightly-knit but regimented community of workers. They are the descendants of people from an ecologically devastated China, brought to a declining America to produce goods for the wealthy, who live in walled Charter communities.

One of the residents of B-Mor is Fan, a young woman, seemingly a model worker and citizen, who unexpectedly leaves the community and ventures alone into the dangerous 'open counties' after her boyfriend 'disappears.'

The novel alternates between telling Fan's story, and having an unnamed narrator, a B-Mor resident, philosophize about Fan and the meaning of her actions.

I have to admit that at time I found the philosophizing bits, which read a bit like a report set down for posterity, to be a bit tedious. However, at other moments, their insightfulness and the beauty of the writing really struck me (see the quote above). [Not for nothing is this guy a professor at Princeton and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.]

Still, I preferred the parts where Fan's story was actually getting told. In many ways it stays with the conventions of the genre: a quest for an unlikely outcome, a peripatetic journey during the course of which the protagonist encounters a concatenation of strange situations illustrating the variety of circumstances that people may create for themselves 'after the fall.' Although the tune is familiar, this is among the better renditions that I've encountered.

Fan is a strong, capable person, but she is just one (literally small) person in a large, hazardous world. I felt that the sense I got of even the most capable of us being like a leaf tossed in the wind was appropriate for the post-apocalyptic setting. Some people may not like that Fan, here, is a very opaque character. Her story is, essentially, being told to us by someone else, so we don't see her internal dialogue. But a large point of the book is about how others project their own dreams and disappointments onto Fan, how she becomes a symbol in her community. So I felt that worked as well.

The story slowly but steadily builds in tension. It has a sense of predictability/inevitability of fate to it which became near-agonizing toward the end. I had some doubts whether I'd be happy with any of the possible ways that I guessed it might conclude. But I actually loved the ending - I thought it had just the right mixture of openness and conclusion, pessimism and hope.